Manchester, England Prime Minister Tony Blair dodged questions Sunday about whom he favors to succeed him, saying the public was angry with his Labour Party for getting bogged down in political intrigue rather than running the country.
Blair warned delegates gathered in this northern England city for the party's annual conference that the preoccupation with his successor removes the focus from policy and could damage their chances at the polls.
"The Labour Party went AWOL from the British public," Blair said. "It looked in on itself. It started all the infighting.
"The public out there are angry about that. They don't want to see their government do that. They want us to govern."
Later, he met an angry challenge on the war in Iraq during a forum at the Manchester Evening News. A questioner suggested he was guilty of war crimes, but Blair defended his decisions to commit Britain to the U.S.-led attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Getting rid of Saddam and getting rid of the Taliban from Afghanistan are things I happen to be proud of," he said.
Blair will formally address the conference Tuesday, but his may only be the second-most anticipated speech of the five-day gathering. Gordon Brown - Blair's treasury chief and the man most likely to succeed him - is scheduled to speak on Monday and there will likely be intense scrutiny of his remarks to surmise what kind of leader he would be.
Sir Jeremy Beecham, who chairs the party's national executive committee, tried to quell any rebellions that might have been brewing among delegates with his own warning Sunday.
"To those scurrying around with letters or attacking colleagues, on behalf of the whole party - a period of silence from you would be welcome," he said.
Blair refused to endorse Brown outright, avoiding answering several questions during an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. about who he favors to succeed him. And he still declined to give a precise date for his departure, which has become a bit of an obsession for the British press, saying only, "Sorry about that."
Blair said last year that he would not stand for election when Britons next go to the polls, expected in 2009. The issue came to a head earlier this month, with Blair finally announcing that he would leave within a year. That kicked speculation into high gear.
But this week Blair said he wants to focus on policy - including education, health and the economy - and on ensuring British voters choose Labour for a fourth term, something that won't be achieved if party members continue to focus on leadership instead of government.
"What I want to do obviously this week is to say to the Labour Party, 'Look. We've had a difficult time recently, go back, focus on the public, the public's concerns, the things that really worry people,"' Blair said. "If we do that, then all of the stuff of the last few weeks will be forgotten. We can concentrate on the future."
In his own interview with BBC on Sunday, Brown said a government led by him will continue to stand with the U.S. in the war on terror. But he called for a greater emphasis on winning support for the fight, saying that military action needed to be combined with a "battle of ideas."